Fran Lock

Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.

Pietà
Wednesday, 08 April 2020 14:27

Pietà

Published in Poetry

Pietà

After the mural by Maxo Vanka

by Fran Lock

we have held him too, and wept our reticent
alchemy. have worn our aura of knives. have
rocked these cumbersome puppets: sons,
brothers, fathers, all our lovely wayward
vanguard. a ventriloquist’s doll, death made
of him. we have covered our hair. we have
entered the green glass eye of the marble.
our hands have been shuttles in the lean
machinery of grief. we have knelt, we have
stooped, voyant with insomnia. we have
addressed our contortions to the aertex
ceiling. we have been pulled about by our
sleeves, by the hoods of our winter coats.
we have been spat on by midget policemen.
we have held him too, a thousand times, our
boys: separable and trembling, inscribed
against the edges of a prison cell, a junkie
squat, this street, this bed, and the pillow
is thin, is famine’s very ration book. we have
prayed. and praying, we have spiked our
prayers: antimony and vinegar. forgive us.
those nights we’d take a razor to the law,
to the sky, to anyone who’d rinse his
strutting warren blood to milk, who’d
make him theirs, who’d rid him of his
wounds. his wounds are real, and also
ours. boys, with their incendiary ventures.
boys, with their nocturnal confrontations
in the no-place common to capital. we have
held him, until he smelled like a stranger.

the immigrant mother raises her sons for industry maxo vanko

awfulness in its finite aspect. and we
became feral with reproach. and we
have screamed away their platinum
lacquer. he is not a gilded bowl, his
asymmetric fractures fixed with gold.
preserve the dull earth fact of him. no
nectar, splendours, no luminous lullaby’s
sugared tyranny. before he can rise he has
to die. he died. her boy, our boys. by
the structures of sin, the abattoir
vocabulary of capital, which grinds all
names to mob. how many boys, partial
and abolished, sewn inside futile
routines of punishment and riot? we have
held him too, and so we know: after
grief is the glowing time. is the goblet
of fire and the tongue of fire and molten
soul made ball. he will come again,
amplified in acid flashback clarity
of blue-black emerald frenzied red.
he’ll wear his love like an ideal sun,
clarion against their tedious malevolence.

the capitalist maxo vanko

he will rise, to slit their throats where
they sit, reciting their vampire creed
into screens. he will rise in their world
of gentrifiers, pesticides, of every
crowd made ghost, their bland disparity.
she will let him stand, sharpened by
sunlight, fabulating crisis into miracle.
but first she is, we are, empress
of humiliations. holding her son
like a sallow candle. light of the world,
oh, you are my sunshine. wax of him
right, ready for burning.

Images: Pietà, The immigrant mother raises her sons for industry and The Capitalist, by Maxo Vanka, murals at Millvale, Pennsylvania, 1937-41

 

'Prayers to the environment': Jane Burn on nature, her writing, her life - and her new book
Tuesday, 07 April 2020 20:19

'Prayers to the environment': Jane Burn on nature, her writing, her life - and her new book

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock interviews Jane Burn, author of Yan, Tan, Tether (Indigo Dreams Press, 2020)

Fran: Thank you so much for agreeing to answer these few questions about your latest collection of poems and illustrations, Yan, Tan, Tether. I’m really excited to do this interview with you, firstly because both the poetry and their companion images speak to my own interest in mediaeval beast poems, but more importantly because a better understanding of how we relate to the animal others in our midst has never been more pressing or more necessary.

I don’t know if you’d agree, but I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about the way art has traditionally made use of the animal world. I was reading an old Guardian interview with Kathleen Jamie the other day, where she talks about nature writing having been ‘colonised’ by ‘middle-class white men’, who produce this decidedly anthropocentric poetry where the animal is only meaningful in respect to the sensations, emotions or ideas it produces in a privileged human observer. One of the most admirable – and I want to say radical – aspects of Yan, Tan, Tether, is the kind of mutuality you evoke between your human and animal speakers. Your animal subjects aren’t ciphers for human experience, and your human observers are attentive and respectful to the otherness of the animal. I want to ask first how conscious you were when putting this collection together of writing back to or against that middle-class white male model of contemporary nature writing, and what parallel traditions you might have been drawing from?

Jane Burn

Jane: Have you ever sat, quiet and frozen absolutely still and held your breath in order to see how close a bird will come to you? You hardly dare move as this amazing, fragile being (that you could crush with one hand) weighs you up. You become aware of every twitch, every hop and flicker of the bird. You see so much expression written on those tiny beads of eye. You notice each little feather in such unexpected detail. You try with all your might to project to the bird how safe you are, how you would never dream of hurting it. It watches you, head cocked, every mite of it poised to fly away at a split second’s notice. You have absolutely no idea what that bird is thinking, or whether it considers you at all beyond a brief curiosity. It measures you quickly – friend or foe? The quieter you stand, the less ‘human’ you are, the nearer it will come.

A couple of weeks ago, I stood just like this in my front garden, statue-still, watching the birds on the bird table from a safe distance. The sparrows came and went individually – blue tits landed on the peanuts in twos and threes. A wood pigeon made an ungainly crash-landing on the fence. A robin flurried among them and drove them away. I thought about how they have their own society, their own complex rules, their own desires and needs, their own individual songs.

In a moment that was over before I had the chance to really register it, a sparrow suddenly landed on my shoulder. After a brief second, the noise of its wings as it flew away sounded in my stunned ear. In this moment, it was like a meeting of two universes. It was a rare connection between our different worlds. It wasn’t a Disney Snow White moment – the birds weren’t there to accentuate my sweetness, to add their backing vocals to my virginal voice. They weren’t there to light upon my delicate, unblemished hand and thrall at my young, doe-eyed beauty (doe-eyed – don’t get me started on that one). They certainly weren’t there to help with the housework. In fact, you could probably go on a lot longer about Disney and his ‘birds’, like when Sleeping Beauty, with her thick tumble of blonde curls, her 18” waist and miniscule feet wanders through a wood spangled with fawning blue and canary yellow songbirds bemoaning her lack of a man.

I am interested in a different kind of ‘magic’. Sometimes I think women have only been allowed nature if it is a foil to keep us in our place. I remember us watching and re-watching our VHS copy of Legend, way back in the 80’s. I loved the film so much but today I am irked by the scenes that emphasize that those beautiful unicorns can only be touched by pure maidens – white clad virgins who reach with awe towards that horn. I think too about how it was a woman’s fault that the wonderful world there was plunged into darkness – ’twas Beauty led the Beast to bay.

By way of a follow up question, I’m aware that there’s this easy and rather patronising assumption of affinity between the feminine and the wild or rural, which I think has been used to marginalise or dismiss women’s contribution to the poetry of the natural world, particularly working-class women, who, in any case, never receive the same critical attention as their male counterparts. Something I really admire about this book is that is shows us the wonder in the ordinary, in the ‘scary’ or the ‘slimy’ too. There’s both reverence for humble things and pity for the damaged, yet not in a sentimental way that softens their rough edges. This feels like such a powerful middle-finger to both the Disnification of nature, and to the arbitrary and shallow distinctions people make about what (and who) is or isn’t worthy of care. One of my favourite illustrations in the whole collection is the slug in ‘Mollusc Song’ wrapped with a speech scroll reading ‘still I find a way to dance’. I wonder to what extend you see Yan, Tan, Tether as a feminist collection? And do you think being a working-class woman has coloured the reception of your work generally?

Animals are not meant as a metaphor for ‘ideal femininity’, are not there to accentuate our innocence, beauty, delicacy and sweetness.  Most of them would avoid us absolutely I am sure, if they could. They dig, bite, kill, screech, chase and catch. They shit and fuck in the open, having been spared our human notions of shame. Think of the fear men had in the past of strong women and their affinity with animals. Got a cat? You’re a witch. Even the thought that a woman might somehow transform into a hare was enough to burn them at the stake. 

Part of my working-class make up is that I live in terror of my own ideas of intelligence. The overwhelming attitude that nobody is going to be interested in you. It’s alright telling me that it’s all in my head, or my ideas of class are my own, or I’m just paranoid, or I am just silly, or it doesn’t exist. My schooling was crappy and I had no idea of the opportunities out there. My parents had no idea of the opportunities out there, not really. I was too shy to say boo for too many years. I am a victim of bullying and abuse. I have been a physical and metaphorical punchbag for so long that my voice was knocked out of me. I have no confidence with anything that requires me to sound like I know what the hell I’m talking about, so please excuse the way I tiptoe around these questions and probably fail to answer any of them at all properly.

Of course I read books about the characters’ varied jobs and lives but they were the lives of other people, not some irrelevant lump, stuck in a nowhere village, grasping books from jumble sales and thanking the stars for the local library. Look at the way they have closed libraries down. What are the children like me going to do now? How are they meant to cobble their own education together now? I have given up feeling sorry for myself but have remained angry. I don’t fit into anyone’s box. My writing doesn’t fit into anyone’s box. I feel I have so much more to prove. I feel as if I am always fighting and that gets very tiring, sometimes. This feeling has been with me so long now, it’s not something I can shake. Call me chippy, go on. I’ve been called it before. I often wonder if I can feel that ceiling above me – that no matter what I write, I have got as far as I am ever going to go.

I want to move away from my heavy-handed political reading of your work now, because I feel like I’m in danger of sucking the joy from what is absolutely a rich, strange, and vivacious book. Instead, I’d love to ask you about the texture and tactile pleasure of your language. There’s a particularity and exactness of phrase in this work that feels intuitive, lived and local. It reminds me of John Clare, who is perhaps my own favourite nature poet. Could you tell me to what extent do the poems in this collection grew out of your own relationship to the landscape and animals around you?

I am terrified of grammar and punctuation. Perhaps that is why I love to free myself within other voices, voices that free me from the idea of restraint. I love words – I am a complete and utter collector of words. Because I don’t belong anywhere, I can belong everywhere (if that makes sense). I can hop and jump through districts and dialects. I make up words of my own and this comes to me easily because maybe I never learned the rules in the first place. To grow up an outsider even in your own community (because you are weird) was not lonely for me. I didn’t want their company. My mother had a hatred of seeing me sitting in some corner reading, or scribbling and sketching onto envelopes, cereal packet backs, etc and would physically turf me out.

I would wander miles on my own – this was something I was used to, right from reception class where I was expected to walk home from school on my own. It was always horses that I sought. I was a master of waiting – it was always worth the wait when they came to the fence and they always tolerated me. Let me touch them. My comfort was being reflected in their eyes. To many, the main thing with horses is riding upon their backs. What about getting to know them first? A big animal that could kick you into next week can hold you with such gentleness in its heart.

At my saddest, I would dream of changing into something else. I galloped round the garden, leapt imaginary fences. I squatted in the garden watching the travelling of snails, pretended to be tiny as a ladybird in the grass. I think this is where the theme of transformation comes from. I have never managed to be at peace with myself as an adult either. I hate the way I look, that I can never be in control of what I am eating, or saying. I am taciturn, loud, inappropriate. I am lonely one moment and hate the idea of company the next. I make my world into a protective shell and feel comfortable within it. To imagine transforming into the purity of an animal’s soul is something that has always inspired me. If I held a mirror up to my own beloved horse’s face, he would do nothing more than shade it with his exhaled breath. A kitten sees its reflection and plays. I look in the mirror and recoil. Imagine the freedom of the sky! I feel it so strongly I get giddy. I root the soil with my fingers and it seems like I sense every molecule in it. I feel connected, unjudged.

I don’t ‘mean’ to write. I tried to describe it during an assessment last year – that it was a sort of rain that falls down all around me and in some places the words begin to string themselves together like beautiful beads. When the words are good, there is no better feeling. When the words are bad, I try my best to ride the waves. Either way, after one of these experiences, I have to race to the nearest writing equipment and put it onto paper. Maybe it’s like speaking in tongues – it’s not something you can control or help. Being possessed like this can be so uplifting yet so draining. There is no escape from it  – yes, it has upsides and downsides but it is me and I couldn’t live without it, even if I knew how.

JB BeFunky collagesx

As a related question, I’m also curious about the mythic or folkloric qualities of the poems, qualities that are underscored by the beautiful companion illustrations. One of the things I love most about the book is that it brings into collision these two medieval forms: the book of hours, and the beast poem, so that there seem to be both Christian and pagan influences at work, both ancient and modern sources of inspiration. Could you talk a bit about the different influences and traditions that went into making the book? What was the impetus for the collection as a whole?

I believe that a lot of folklore and myth has sprung from similar places. When I was very young, I loved Greek and Roman stories. As I grew older, I read more and more. This is a place where nothing needs to be what it seems, where there is magic, where there is pleasure and pain, where people and animals intertwine. I was fascinated by creatures like the minotaur, and centaurs and harpies. The idea of two creatures living in one skin was always something that somehow comforted me and gave me hope. I felt much less alone and it felt natural to me to connect in this way.

I was raised a Methodist and yes, I have such fondness for those pared down, plainly painted chapels. My mother was a Catholic however and I had such a fascination and craving for rosary beads, statues of the Madonna, pictures of the Sacred Heart. This led to learning about iconography (especially Russian icons) and manuscript illumination. Every wire of my brain strums at the sight of them. To me, they are the epitome of faith, skill, patience and joy. They are unashamed celebrations. If you wanted to express your greatest love on paper, that would be the way. They are glorious and the book of hours takes everything to the next level. They are such staggeringly precious expressions of devotion. They are exquisite – raw and real with colour, fearless in their purpose.

I have often wondered, over the years what my faith is to me. I came to the conclusion that it has never been just one thing.  It is the cobbling together of a lifetime of love – the greatest love of all being the natural world. If I had to choose one thing as my church, nature would be it. To make a sort of book of hours of my own, one that could also be enjoyed by others as part of their own ‘worship’, seemed a natural progression. I don’t think the poems would function so well without the illuminations. Both lend so much extra depth to the other and adding text to the pictures helps to connect them even more. 

I’ll try to make these last questions a bit more practical and succinct: firstly, could you tell us a bit about the relationship between your painting and your poetry? Calling the images ‘illustrations’ almost seems wrong – let’s call them ‘illuminations’ instead in every sense – as they feel just as integral to the collection as a whole as the poems. Could you perhaps talk a little bit about the particular work each art form is doing? Does one form always precede the other?

I had these images in my head as I was writing the poems although I didn’t commit them to paper until after the poems were written. I wanted to wait until I was ready to give myself over to the production of them as a whole as it can be very distracting to have to keep packing up artwork or jump from one project to another. I knew I had a good number of them to produce – 23 in total (including the cover). The earliest poem in this collection was Froghopper, which was written in 2014, and the illuminations were produced through the winter of 2018. Just like an ancient monk, I set my table up with equipment and worked tirelessly on them and it was a pleasure to be able to give myself over to such an involving project. It was great to finally be able to set the images free from the confines of my head. The book was beautifully and sympathetically published by the wonderful Indigo Dreams in December 2019, so I guess it shows sometimes how long it can take a book to come to fruition.

The borders for the images were just as important as the images themselves, just as they are in original religious works. For me they also allowed me to include and acknowledge some of the other artworks I love – canal art, rosemaling, the decoration on vardos, folk art. These are the works that I love. You might not see much of it in galleries but they are beautiful to me. I felt I had to include references to these styles if I was going to remain true to my own heart.

Last of all, I’d love for you to tell us something about the animal friends and collaborators in your life, as it feels really appropriate that we give these important figures the final word.

These are the friends that I share my life with currently – my horse Orca and dogs Iggy and Patsy. Orca came to me from the Traveller community when I was 37 (I’m 48 now). He lived with a huge herd of mares and foals that roamed free on a massive acreage of grazing. I was told, simply, to go ahead and walk to find them and choose one. Many of the foals were friendly, some even bold, but it was the tiny red and white, peeping warily from behind his solid mother that instantly stole my heart. Each foal was completely unhandled and had been born in the field at the mercy of nature, as they would have been in the wild.

Orca would come nowhere near me. I visited the field three times a week for six weeks and as you can see from one of the pictures, I spent the time pretending to be a horse as much as possible. I stayed low so I wouldn’t tower over him. I kept my hands to myself – what would have been the point of trying to forcibly catch a wild creature in a 50 acre field? For four weeks, he came closer and closer. Curiosity brought him to me but he kept a safe distance between us. Weeks five and six brought with them touch and trust. He is twelve this summer and I truly believe our souls have become inseparable.

JB dogs

Iggy and Patsy are Jack Russells, and couldn’t be more true to type if they tried. One of my friends that knows them well says they ought to have their own TV series! Iggy came from someone who bred them as ‘foxing dogs’ for the hunt. It is a victory that he lives a completely different life with us. They are 9 and 8 years old and show no signs of slowing down. I could say that they are wilful, stubborn, vociferous, destructive, escapologist tearaways but that would be me projecting my own humanity on them. They are just 100% themselves, always filthy from digging and smelly from rolling. They love and protect us with a passion and we love them right back, though they are quick (especially little Patsy) so watch your fingers!

I guess when it comes to the wonderful creatures we share our world with, I have found that while you can learn some secrets from them, they teach me so much more about myself. They give me a voice that I use with confidence. They free me from constraints of language. They never look at one another as a kingdom to be conquered. They just are.

Thank you so much for talking with me. I really hope that wasn’t awful!

I hope that I have managed to provide some of the answers to these questions at least. I hoped that people will read the book and be inspired to get out there and use each page to inspire their own ‘prayers’ to the environment. The more you learn to love it at its most fundamental, the more I hope we become conscious of how much we need to do in order to protect it. The small changes are as important as the big ones. If you know the value of insects, you might be more aware of where you place your feet, or might not get the bug spray out so readily. The more you love the birds, the more you might let your hedges alone so they can nest, the more you might offer them food when times are tough. The more you get out into the open, the more you might fall in with the natural order of the seasons. I hope this book manages to do that, even a little bit.

Jane's poems have appeared in many magazines including The Rialto, Strix, Butcher’s Dog and Under the Radar, and anthologies from publishers such as Seren and The Emma Press. Since 2014 her poems have had success in 43 poetry competitions. Her pamphlets include Fat Around the Middle (Talking Pen, 2015) and Tongues of Fire (BLERoom, 2016).Her collections are noting more to it than bubbles (Indigo Dreams, 2016), This Game of Strangers (Wyrd Harvest Press, 2017, co-written with Bob Beagrie), One of These Dead Places (Culture Matters, 2017), Fleet, (Wyrd Harvest Press, 2018), Remnants (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2019, again written with Bob Beagrie), and the astonishing Yan, Tan, Tether (Indigo Dreams Press, 2020). Her poems have been nominated for the Forward and Pushcart prize. She is co-editor of Witches, Warriors and Workers (Culture Matters, 2020) and is an Associate Editor at Culture Matters.

Yan, Tan, Tether is published by Indigo Dreams Publishing, and is available to purchase here.

'Most good art is queer': Fran Lock interviews Golnoosh Nour
Friday, 27 March 2020 15:17

'Most good art is queer': Fran Lock interviews Golnoosh Nour

Published in Fiction

Fran Lock interviews Dr Golnoosh Nour, who was born in Tehran, about her new book, The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories. Her debut poetry collection Sorrows of the Sun was published in 2017, and she teaches at Birkbeck College and the University of Bedfordshire. 

FL: Thank you so much for agreeing to answer these few questions about your debut collection of short stories, The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories. I really wanted to do this interview with you because reading the book has initiated in me such a profound period of reflection on notions of queer subjectivity, politics, and nationhood, themes that feel especially relevant and pressing in the current climate.

GN: Thank you for having me, Fran. I’m delighted you found the book so engaging!

It has always seemed bizarre and slightly suspect to me that wherever in the world British or US political interventions are at their most militaristic, swingeing and destructive, we develop a directly proportionate appetite for the literature of those nations. We’ve seen this in Palestine, Afghanistan, in Northern Ireland, and I don’t know if you agree, but I think we’re starting to see it now in Iran. My own feeling is that there is a tendency within publishing, and also within the wider culture, to simultaneously exoticise and assimilate the places and peoples it fixates on. The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories is such a nuanced book, one that seems to revel in ambivalence and ambiguity. I wonder how conscious you are of writing back against literary culture’s tendency to homogenise and make a fetish of Iran or of some seemingly ‘typical’ Iranian Experience?

Yes, you’re absolutely right, but unfortunately, this is nothing new. Hamid Dabashi and several other Iranian scholars have discussed this issue in depth; since America’s ‘war on terror’, there has been a significant rise in the publication of literature by Iranian women in the West, sometimes to international recognition and praise. These books are often memoir/ nonfiction, and they often have a formula that comfortably confirms the western right-wing narrative of Iran, in which everything Iranian is dreadful and problematic unlike everything western that is ideal and liberating. Farzaneh Milani has coined a term to define this literary subgenre as ‘hostage narrative’. A narrative which offers ‘arrested representations’ that are ‘caged images of reality that is perpetually moving and shifting’. Hostage narrative generalises and simplifies by portraying Iranian women as victims thereby dismissing their contributions to Iranian culture. So yes, I was very aware of this. And the other thing I noticed is that all the characters in these books are heteronormative. So, my book, I hope, is also a reaction against the heteronormative and monolithic portrayals of Iran and its sexualities. 

1 Nabeela Vega

From the series Visiting Thabab, by Nabeela Vega

As a kind of inelegant follow-on to the previous question: one of the joys of this collection is that through the varied subjectivities of your speakers you present an image of Iran, and also of queer identity that is characterised by multiplicity, polyphony and contradiction. How important was the short story form to you as a vehicle for exploring this diversity of voice and experience? And do you perhaps see radical or subversive potential in the short story form as genre? Is there something about it that makes it ideally suited for the transmission of queer narratives in particular?

As you know, the short story is not my favourite literary form. But for this specific book, I felt that it was the most suitable form. Because this book is about representation and I wanted to show as many Iranian queers in depth as possible. And I had many stories to tell about queerness, so I believe these thirteen short stories do the job perfectly well. But also, the famous definition that Sedgwick offers of queerness that queerness is an ‘open mesh of possibilities’ and I have to admit I feel the same way about short story as a form. In this sense, short story as an artform provides a comfortable cradle for queerness. 

To stay with the idea of queerness, would you mind speaking briefly about what the notion of queerness means to you, and where you see yourself in terms of building and contouring a modern queer canon?

One of the most wholesome definitions of queerness has been provided by Sarah Ahmed in her seminal book, Queer Phenomenology. She says anything that disrupts is queer and anyone practicing nonnormative sexualities is queer as they disrupt heteronormative structures. I myself identify as queer. And all my protagonists in The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories are queer. They express a lot of same sex desires, but also other desires that can’t be tamed, labelled, and defined by the mainstream discourses of sexuality. In his essay, Queer Past, Queer Present, Queer Future, Jonathan Kemp says queer is about ‘not simply imitating the norm but exploring alternatives’. And I think this is a great place to start. 

I think the queer canon has always existed, in fact, I believe most good art is queer. As for the modern queer canon, there are so many thrilling queer voices, including Saleem Haddad, Alan Hollinghurst, Danez Smith, Joelle Taylor, Ocean Vuong, Jay Bernard, Eileen Myles, Sophie Robinson, Jonathan Kemp, Tomasz Jerdowski, Paul Mendez, Chloe Caldwell, Keith Jarrett, Julia Bell, Jericho Brown, Richard Scott, and of course yourself, and we are just some of the contemporary ones. I think Audre Lorde, Allen Ginsberg, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Forough Farrokhzad, and Iris Murdoch still count as modern queer canon, right? And then a bit further back we have artists like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. So, the queer canon is a never-ending and ever-expanding canon, an open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, and I am floating in it too if I’m lucky. 

2 Alpha Beta Burqua by Parisa Parnian titled It is Complicated

It's Complicated, by Parisa Parnian

At the heart of queerness there is a condition or a feeling of otherness, of being ‘other’. Reading your collection, particularly the stories ‘Soho’ and ‘Oshima’, I am reminded that this is also the feeling that attends exile, the feeling that accompanies being a migrant or a refugee, a stranger in a strange land. I know you’re familiar with the Edward Said quote about exile, that it is ‘the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted’. Your stories intertwine queerness and migrancy in intricate and moving ways, but even when your protagonists are speaking from their native place they often seem divided and estranged. Is there something of the perpetual exile in all of us queers?

Wow, this is such an interesting connection! I love it so much. I think you’re absolutely right in that there is definitely a sense of exile in queerness, especially considering that queerness by its very definition does result in otherness, and being otherised by the society; but partly, it is self-exile too, which isn’t necessarily a sorrowful place. I think there can be joy and strength in exile, in staying away from societal norms, to mock them, to push them away, to question them, to escape them. And to be proactive about it, rather than passively exiled.  So, although I agree with Said, that there is sorrow in exile, I also think there is hope and joy in it, too. 

Staying with this thought, I do want to stress that this is also a playful collection, full of humour and joy. One of the things that struck me particularly was its attention to moments of solidarity; mutual expressions of friendship and care. Queerness also figures in your work as a scene, a vibrant and nonconforming fellowship, and I wondered how the notion of a queer community – or communities – has shaped your identity as a writer, and conversely, how you think that literature has helped to foster the idea of queer community?

I’m incredibly grateful for the queer communities both in Tehran and in London, not just as a writer but as a nonconformist individual who still needs to survive the heteronormative societies. So, I do think we need communities for our survival and nourishment, at the same time I believe it’s important to know that community is not the only thing we need and it is not enough. Bear in mind, that communities, especially big ones, tend to create their own hierarchies and power structures. So, I think as queers, we also need a lot of solitude, self-love, and individuation. As the great Audre Lorde argues, for queers, especially queers of colour, caring for oneself is a ‘political act of warfare’. 

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Occupy Me: Topping from the Bottom, by Hushidar Mortezaie

Reading back through these questions it strikes me that they seem quite political in tone, and I find myself wanting to apologise for that because the luxury of not being political is something a number of your protagonists struggle with. I’m thinking particularly of ‘An Evening of Martyrdom’, and reading this story I had in mind something that the American poet Patricia Smith once said, that even if she were to write a poem about meadow flowers it would still be a political act by virtue of the fact that she is a working class black woman in an elite cultural space. Being queer in Iran – being queer in a lot of places – can have very real and very violent consequences, which I think makes it tempting for straight white western audiences to valorise being Iranian and queer as uniquely defiant or ‘brave’, which in itself is a form of violence, a form erasure, in that it ignores the daily negotiations individuals undertake – when to conceal, when to disclose – the oscillation between moments of defiance, and those of fear or of guilt for not being political enough. These tensions are something you handle admirably in your story, and that sense of yearning for a time and place where queer people will be granted the freedom to desire without being crudely politicised. I’d be interested to know if you believe this place and time exists – can ever exist, and how these tensions influence both your choices as a writer, and the way you feel your work is perceived out there in the world?

I agree with Jonathan Kemp that being queer is ‘inherently political’, so no unfortunately there is no escape from politics with capital P during these highly politicised times, where everything is inherently political and politicised, not just one’s sexual identity. There is still a lot of queerbashing in the world, and being queer is still one of the most political positions one can occupy. I’m a bit of an optimist, so I do think, if we keep fighting, there will be a time and place when people can honestly express their nonnormative sexual desires without being bashed or politicised. But at the moment, we have a long way to go. And that’s why, I believe, queer visibility is vital. And I hope I am creating a lot of queer visibility with my literary endeavours as well as by my very existence and day to day survival in an extremely conservative world. 

I want to move away from the explicitly queer aspects of your work now to focus on a theme I think is of equal weight and importance. Some of the most poignant and well realised moments in this collection are centred on familial relationships: cousins, brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, daughters and fathers. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about how your own sense of family has shaped your writing, both the short stories, and your poetry?

I am very close with my family, and I know very well how family dynamics can be beautiful but also intense and even destructive at times. I think I am lucky with my family, because I have a rather unconventional family. My late mother was a powerful philosophy professor from whom I learned how to be unapologetically strong and intellectually ambitious. And my father is an adoring and adorable person who is also a bit of an individualist who doesn’t care much for social conventions. He’s always enjoyed making jam and pickles, sewing, and maths. And I cherish my three siblings, and my amazing niece and nephew. My older brother is also a writer, so we have a nourishing writerly relationship as well as a loving siblinghood.

From an early age, I never really learned to take gender roles very seriously, even though I was born and raised in an extremely gendered country. I could see that my parents didn’t really abide by the usual gender norms and they were just fine and they didn’t try to suffocate my natural tendencies either. They never told me to ‘act like a girl’ or be a certain way because of my gender. For that alone, I shall always be grateful to them. And I think my lack of respect and sometimes acknowledgement of gender roles and gender norms come across quite strongly both in my personality and my writing. And this is just my blood-related family, my partner who is also a writer inspires me a lot, and we’ve fought a lot of homophobia and racism to be together. And as you know, these are also recurring themes in my work. 

I mention poetry because it is a constant presence in your stories, from Iranian modernist poets like Forough Farrokhzad to the decadent Romantics like Lord Byron. I feel like I know the answer to this question, but has poetry been a source of solidarity and nourishment for you as a writer? Has it been influential in fostering your own sense of queer identity?

You do know the answer indeed and it is, ‘yes!’. I cannot imagine my life without poetry. My own poetry and as well as other people’s poetry has definitely strengthened me both as a writer and an individual. Audre Lorde is right, for marginalised voices, poetry is a necessity. A method for reclaiming power, and for me it has also been cathartic and inspiring. Also, from a technical point of view, I believe, even prose writers need to learn poetry and read poetry even if they don’t have the desire or urge to write it. Poetry is where language can be at its most polished, its most beautiful, and its most revolutionary. I do not trust writers who say they have no interest in poetry. Poetry is an artform that needs to be understood and engaged with, even if not deployed, if one wants to be any good at literature. 

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bedoone onvan/untitled, by Kiyaan Abadan

Staying with poetry a bit, I’d like to finish – if you can possibly bear it – with a rather boring question about form.  Could you tell me about the role these different forms of writing perform for you, as both writer and reader? How does the process of creation differ across short stories and poetry? Are their things you can say in one, not easily accommodated by the other?

This is not a boring question at all! Quite the opposite. 

For me writing short stories and poetry are two very different modes of being. My poetry comes naturally, effortlessly, almost how Wordsworth defines it as a spontaneous overflow of emotion, except that for me there is no ‘tranquillity’ when I’m writing it. My poetry erupts, whereas that is not the case at all with my short stories. I meticulously plot my short stories before writing them. I have an idea, I know exactly what I want. I know the characters, the setting, the protagonist, even the dialogues. I have it all in my head first. Whereas with a poem, I have no idea where it’s taking me, a poem has its own force, direction, and destination, so I just go with it and I know it will take me somewhere cathartic, whereas with my short stories, I tell them exactly where to take me so I have a more active role with them. 

Thanks so much for talking to me! I hope that wasn’t too painful.

Thank you for your thought-provoking and intelligent questions. It was a pleasure to answer them. 

The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories is published by Muswell Press and will be available to purchase here from the 2nd April.

Joker: living without class-consciousness and solidarity
Monday, 28 October 2019 08:48

Joker: living without class-consciousness and solidarity

Published in Films

Fran Lock reviews Joker's treatment of violence, poverty, class, gender and race, and the way it subverts 'one of capitalism's most pernicious fictions'

If you want to get ahead in life, just go for it on your own. Facing obstacles? There’s nothing you can’t overcome and put right. You just need to put your mind to it and work harder.

This self-transcending narrative has to be one of Western capitalism’s most pernicious fictions. It’s everywhere. It permeates our literature, and saturates our film and television. It’s in every beloved underdog story, anywhere a protagonist achieves their dreams by dint of hard work, dedication and individual exceptionalism. In the realm of the self-transcending narrative the social forces that create and perpetuate financial and social disparity are obscured; “adversity” is only meaningful as it applies to a character’s personal struggle, as something to atomistically triumph over. Poverty, for example, is routinely depicted as a depoliticised force of nature, an obstacle the individual in poverty is responsible for overcoming. This elides the brutal truth: that poverty is a deliberately engineered system of economic exploitation, the overthrow of which demands radical, collective action.

Capitalism has no interest in acknowledging this fact. Instead, it uses cultural platforms to peddle the message that we can only transcend our circumstances through extraordinary individual effort. The results of this poisonous philosophy are three-fold.

First, that people in poverty are encouraged to view each other as competitors, a position which is toxic to all forms of affective solidarity, and which prevents us from coming together to organise against that which besets us. Second, the focus on individual accomplishment as the only viable route out of poverty recasts societal failures as personal ones, and this encourages the fatally misguided idea that those born into poverty persist in poverty because they are weak, lazy, or otherwise morally deficient. Finally, a worldview that enshrines individual transcendence at the expense of the collective valorises capitalism’s every selfish, acquisitive gambit, placing undue value on the signifiers of material wealth, indifferent to how, and at whose expense, that wealth was created.

In short, at the heart of the seemingly benign underdog genre lurks the insidious propaganda of late-stage capitalism. It’s a form of propaganda, I’m grateful to say, that Todd Phillips’ recent film, Joker, has zero tolerance for.

I’ve been to see Joker twice now, and I may very well go again. The film has a kind of feral poetry to it, and Phoenix’s performance as the titular character achieves, at moments, a species of gaunt, contorted eloquence that is both pathetic and viscerally frightening. These aspects of the film, however, are extensively covered in other reviews, so I would like, instead, to focus on some critically underexplored aspects of its politics and ethics. Specifically, I would like to address the film’s engagement with the self-transcending narrative, and what it has to say about our relationship, as both audience and as citizens, to the underdog genre in mainstream cinema.

Underdog stories......

In underdog stories the central plot is typically resolved in one of the following ways. Firstly, the central protagonist achieves self-actualisation through romantic intimacy. In this version of the narrative, the character may still be living in straitened circumstances, but thanks to a deep, personal connection with another human being is able to transform their own outlook, embracing and valuing what they have, and accepting the world around them. This plot is the staple of romantic comedies and so called chick flicks.

Secondly, through dedication and hard-work and after years of struggle, the central protagonist succeeds in their area of endeavour, finally having earned the validation and respect of their peers. This is the stuff of myriad sports genre films, often “based on a true story” however selectively, such as Ron Howard’s 2005 Cinderella Man, or Bennett Miller’s 20011 Moneyball, but it also appears with frequency in spurious rags to riches biopics of various celebrities.

Thirdly, through the recognition or surprise intervention of an individual who embodies all the characteristics the central protagonist aspires to, the character is given the chance to prove themselves and shine in their chosen field. My Fair Lady is probably the most famous cinematic example of this model, but we’re probably most familiar with it from reality television shows such as the ever-nauseating X Factor, Pop Idol, or The Voice, where hopeful amateurs compete before a panel of washed up pop singers who presumable embody the kind of fame and success the competitors are striving for.

Fourthly, a miracle occurs, the unlikely or surprising “big break” that catapults the character from obscurity and into the well-deserved limelight. This particular form of resolution is often referred to as a Deus Ex Machina; the audience are meant to understand this miraculous good fortune not as a stroke of luck, but as somehow fated or pre-ordained, a further proof of the character’s inherent exceptionalism. Danny Boyle’s well-intentioned though ultimately problematic 2008 Slumdog Millionaire is perhaps the most well-known example of this form of resolution.

Each of these plots encourage a form of easy identification in their audience, a palliative to the hardships of their own lives; a vague dream that things could be different if only: if only I could find “the one”, if only I worked harder, if only I got my “big break”, if only my talent were recognised, etc. None of these plots significantly challenge the social status quo, or offer any serious analysis of the conditions that create inequality and social stagnation. The romantic intimacy resolution places the responsibility for change squarely in the domestic and personal realm, leaving the political sphere untouched.

The resolution through continuous effort enshrines the capitalist work ethic without acknowledging the unequal demands of the labour market on the poorest amongst us, or the chronic lack of opportunity and access for talented people in poverty.

The resolution through intervention ignores in the first place, the bald unlikelihood of such an intervention, and places the burden of transformation on individual acts of patronage, not radical political reorganisation. This model also puts the central protagonist in a subordinate position to their patron, constantly competing and performing in order to “earn” their condescension.

Finally, the miracle model is a beguiling fiction that removes change from the arena of human intervention altogether, offering instead an ill-defined dream of transcendence.

.....are another site of rejection

Joker takes a sledgehammer to all of these promised resolutions in turn, transforming each scene of self-actualisation into a site of further disillusionment, rejection and debasement. As Arthur Fleck, the character must acknowledge that the one connection he was able to forge with another person existed only in his mind, that his hard work and effort earned him nothing but mass derision, that the person who best exemplifies the healthy functioning of the self-transcending narrative (Thomas Wayne) not only fails to recognise his worth, but also his basic humanity; that this person is, in fact, repulsed by him. Finally, Arthur’s big break, his Deus Ex Machina moment, is revealed to be nothing but a cynical manipulative exercise, as a TV talk show host courts controversy and chases ratings.

joker 4

There is no resolution, the film seems to tell us, there is no rising above, there is no way out. This sense of the inescapable pervades the film. It’s in everything from the narrow, litter-strewn streets, the shabby, over-crowded apartment building in which Arthur ekes out his days. It’s in the grim municipality of official buildings. It’s even in the repressed and awkward way that Arthur holds a pen, the laborious motions he makes as he writes and moves, the pent-up, nervous tension with which he inhabits his own skin. Strenuous effort is inscribed across every available surface of this film. The physical exertions and exhaustions the characters are put through –climbing steep, slippery staircases, running in clumsy, ill-fitting clown shoes –  mirrors the daily psychological struggle to exist in extreme poverty, to fight against your own erasure and annihilation.

Claustrophobic poverty

Indeed, there is something familiarly claustrophobic about the Gotham of Joker. Everything is cramped, circumscribed and precarious: landscapes, internal and external, movements, pleasures, interactions. It’s troublingly resonant to anyone who has negotiated poverty and the systems that administer you in that poverty.

Two vignettes in particular stand out as being particularly well-realised in this regard. The first is Arthur’s court-mandated conversations with his social worker: the office in which these meetings takes place are small and crowded, bringing the pair uncomfortably close without ever engendering any sense of human intimacy. The whole room is hedged in and crowded out with the apparatus of bureaucracy, even the chairs look purposefully uncomfortable. Arthur’s social worker is palpably exhausted, weary and wary in equal measure. You have the sense from Sharon Washington’s tense yet understated performance of a once-caring person burnt out and overwhelmed by the scale of the problems facing her. Everything she says and does is hemmed in, tightly controlled by official rhetorics to the point of impotence.

At one point she asks him if it helps, having meetings with her, having someone to talk to, and the pathos is gut-wrenching: as if anything taking place in that grimy, underfunded box could be described as genuine conversation. Later, when Arthur tells her she has never listened to him she counters with “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And they don’t give a shit about people like me either.” And in that line is reflected an entire dismal history of mental illness and low-income violence; the way in which it rebounds so often on those with whom the perpetrators should feel the stirrings of solidarity.

Washington’s character, in that moment, realises something that Phoenix’s does not, that the power elites that govern both their lives regard neither one of them as fully human. She looks beaten and sad as she says it. A black woman trapped in a city that wants to crush her, that is indifferent to her on a fatal scale every single day. It is one of the film’s most haunting moments.

joker sharon

The second memorable vignette takes place between Arthur and his boss. Arthur is being disciplined for “skipping out” on work, only he didn’t skip out, he was mugged and beaten by a group of teenagers. Arthur protests his innocence, yet his boss elects not to believe him. Why would teenagers steal a “going out of business” sign? He claims it isn’t credible and demands Arthur replace the sign immediately, or else the money will be deducted from his already scant wages. Why would I steal a sign? asks Arthur, desperately. I don’t know, replies his boss, why does anybody do anything? The logic at play is Kafkaesque: Arthur’s boss is perfectly happy to ascribe arbitrary, nonsensical motives to Arthur, yet won’t countenance the same from a group of random teenagers. Phoenix stands there shaking in dependent, impotent frustration. Any member of the modern precariat can identify with this scene, and the endlessly rolling sock of casual cruelties and minor injustices it represents.

Yet Arthur is hardly a figure of easy identification. Seeing the world through Arthur’s eyes is an uncomfortable experience. His daily interactions are abjectly grinding, serving to shave out any last scrap of good in him. This is worthy of pity, yet Arthur’s responses to the world around him are also underscored by a disturbing narcissism. “I have felt invisible my whole life” he tells his social worker, a black woman who must contend with a million different registers and levels of invisibility daily.

In another scene, Arthur is pulling faces at a child on a bus. The child is laughing and Arthur clearly meant no harm, but the child’s mother snatches her son away, reprimanding Arthur for bothering her child. Because we, the audience, see through Arthur’s eyes, this interaction seems harsh and unfair, but in Gotham city, or its real-world equivalents, might not the ambient threat with which that mother and child live their daily lives have caused her to react, not out of unkindness, but genuine fear? During the era the film is set the Atlanta child murders were also taking place, and black families were confronting each day the terrible truth that their children were basically expendable in the eyes of the law.

Living without class-consciousness or solidarity

Towards the climax of the film it is heavily implied that Arthur’s response to the realisation his one human connection was a hallucinatory figment is to murder the object of his fantasy, and possibly her child (ably played by Zazie Beets and Rocco Luna respectively). Phillips doesn’t show these deaths, or the death of Arthur’s psychiatrist in the penultimate scene, choosing instead to signal this murder with a trail of bloody footprints as Arthur/Joker dances down the hospital corridor to That’s Life by Frank Sinatra.

Joker hospital

This is disturbing in a number of ways. It’s disturbing because the climax of the film we are all waiting for, the transformation from Arthur into Joker that we were willing to take place, is born off the backs of these murdered women. Their deaths sit uneasily beside the shooting of the classist Wall Street chauvinists on the train, the point blank rage with which de Niro’s shallow ‘Murray’ is dispatched, or the Wayne family paying for Thomas Wayne’s fatal hubris with their lives. These deaths have cathartic power; they are extreme and exaggerated examples of Gotham’s twisted justice. They are public deaths, reacted to with shock both within the context of the film and within the confines of the theatre alike. The deaths of the film’s black women aren’t even shown; these characters figure as both real (in terms of the narrative) and cinematic collateral. This should make us feel deeply uneasy.

None of which is to say that Joker is a “bad” or lesser film for provoking this unease. Whether Phillips specifically intended his film to raise questions about the intersections of violence, poverty, gender and race is almost beside the point; these questions are a timely and significant aspect of the film, part of its text and texture, and ours: we view it in a racially divided world, through a racially sensitised lens. It’s unavoidable, and actually, it’s salutary. The film isn’t explicitly about race, it’s about class, but any serious meditation on this axis of oppression will inevitably intersect with others. Joker shows, I think how these forms of oppression collide and skew with tragic results.

I came away from my second watching of this film thinking that its central tragedy is the sheer embeddedness of the self-transcending narrative in society; how this hideous creed, wedded in America to a fiercely nationalistic script, inoculates against empathy. Arthur is isolated, ostracised and alone because Gotham, on a systemic level, doesn’t care about him. He is shunned and abused, his labour exploited, by a seemingly endless parade of individuals who have bought, wholesale, into vampire capitalism’s social Darwinist crap.

Yet Arthur is also isolated by his own lack of empathy, by his inability to recognise the deliberate and structural nature of the inequalities that beset him, to see himself as part of a whole.  During his live TV interview with De Niro's ‘Murray’ Joker states more than once that he isn’t political, and this is the perhaps the saddest thing of all. His actions, in shooting the wealthy dickheads on the subway, appear to have started a movement, summoned and mobilised a powerful, dissenting ‘we’, yet most of the crowd, and Joker himself, are not engaged in any kind of collective resistance, but a directionless howl of rage and pain, emanating from shattered subjectivities and innumerable private hells.

By the end of the film, Arthur has become the Joker. He has been transformed into Gotham’s best beloved villain, the villain he was always destined to be. And that’s what self-transcendence looks like for Arthur, the steady metamorphosis of a sad unstable man into a psychotically homicidal clown. In this way Phillips’ vision of Gotham takes to cartoonish extremes the very real consequences of living without care, without hope, without class-consciousness or solidarity.

Canticle of the Sun: for the Feast of St. Francis
Friday, 04 October 2019 14:21

Canticle of the Sun: for the Feast of St. Francis

Published in Poetry

Canticle of the Sun

for the feast of St. Francis, 4 October

by Fran Lock

And what if we should feel like singing? Lift
our undefended faces to the light, and catch
a discredited tongue, gold and fleet in upper air.

Hey, you up there! To you a reeling blessing;
love’s honeyed physic, faith and laud. You’re
not a name as such: two stones struck to speech
in fire, white bird wheeling in a dance against
gravity; trampled cranesbill pushing back
in public parks.

We see you. Brother Sun, who wakes the city
window boxes all unkempt. Small green spaces,
roused and then beguiled by turns, the hedges
fitfully splendored, and dogs! in the gilded
tousle of their morning run, are bright with you.

We see you. Sister Moon, the night-streets,
formidable with phantoms, suddenly silvered.
The moody precariat stilled, turning to each other
like careful strangers, spellbound, spilling softened
breath.

We see you. Brother storm, in cattails, contrails,
any thin thing whipped to life. Resuscitate with
weightlessness our wastrel spaces, fly-tipped margins.
A carrier bag caught in grasping branches ciphers
an eloquent ghost.

Hey, you up there, I feel you move against
the awful formal violence of the world
and its experiments. I feel you move against
its agonies of evidence, convictions, symptoms,
lairy fates. I cup the ruthless cold: water from
the bathroom tap, and know we’re not abandoned;

I watch the cooker flexing its fire,
a petiole swell to incandescence,
and I know we are not abandoned.

Hey, you up there! When that soft-boiled grotesque
in a salesman’s tie tells us anything lucrative is holy,
I feel you move. Not some tremulous silken ethic, but
sturdy and avenging.

Hey, for the root, the bulb, the branch.
For anything we turn or tend, or tread
to raging thirst. Today we feel like singing:
a hymn, the Internationale, a tuneless
spirited croaking as I scrub black mould
from the walls.

Hey, for the wakefulness that keeps us
extending a hand, filling a thermos, arming
ourselves against the dark dividing.

Singing. Our dead are turning two pages
at once, racing away. And yet, today they
are with us. Suffering, rejoicing, they flower
and flow.

Hey, you up there! It’s not the comfort we take,
but the comfort we bestow. This song you have
taught us. Now we step outside to make it grow.

helpston
Wednesday, 08 May 2019 09:48

helpston

Published in Poetry

helpston

by Fran Lock

the brazen head has spoken: heat. and now, the summer
lifts its loaded pitchforks to the light. the pewit in the dog-
whistle of its wings. gardens teem, lecherous and stifled.
here, the sly, fermented smiles of youth on bikes. they do
not know. this heat, a tight green crouch that cannot spring.
mother preens the sentimental hedges, while father wags
a hammer at a nail; little darlings flicker in the surly glow
of screens, and not yet ripe inside their hoods, are white
and snug as unpicked beans. they do not know. of typhus,
or of blight. of shroud, or yoke; of picket or of flail. old
times of ague, ergot-glut. those hungry times. a race of
scarecrow-scavengers who stoop their pale route through
the dust. crops fail, and bodies burn, with every scotched
intention. nature, not resurgent but insidious. the sap of
sickness glistens on a lip; an eye becomes an ulcer. yet
an oddling grace abides, abounds in burdock, sovereign
bowers of meadowmat and columbine. the ramsons in
a limestone wood; scent of resin, garlic, pine. fieldfare,
haunters of the chalk, foraging for song. i followed john.
the hottest day, and god, god was a big, bronze dynamo
that drove the world. and god, god was a gavel knocked
against the sweating temple, night on night. to swim
the sky's dark boiling soak; to suck the oily rag of grief.
i followed john, i saw the world, i squared its squalor
with my eye: little village, prettied in an anise air
that clouds and parts like ouzo. houses there are patient
and forgetful, full of pride. footpaths deny their
multitudes, and churches pose for photos. boys on
bikes are sugar rush and selfies, fumble-tongued
misogynies. pubs revile a mastiff dog, the plastery
hands of working men. i woke and followed john.
summer, gathers in its arrowheads: starlings, jutting
up from fallow fields like flints. the honey buzzard's
conqueror's call; the lichens on the drystone wall,
a flaking papal gilding. no, they do not know. who
swallow sermons down like swords; who drink
the chicory english real. this land is equal ore
and gorge. and john, if john is walking, eating grass
or tearing at his hair, slides his shadow into ditches,
where, tucked among the muddy reeds, his dreams
are weeds, a knotty freedom spreading.

John Clare died on May 20, 1864.

In praise of strangeness
Thursday, 21 February 2019 10:37

In praise of strangeness

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes in praise of a working-class poetics that revels in richness and strangeness, and includes a strange and rich poem taken from her forthcoming collection with Culture Matters, In Need of Saints.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives… As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. – from Poetry Is Not a Luxury, by Audre Lord.

Each time I read the above the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and my pulse sprints just that little bit quicker. Sister Outsider, the collection of essays and speeches in which I first encountered “Poetry is Not a Luxury” was published way back in 1984, and yet its radical message has resonance and relevance that still outstrips most of what is written in defence of poetry today. This is both a testament to Lorde’s legacy as an activist and a writer, and a slightly depressing comment on the state of poetry and poetry discourse in the twenty-first century.

Almost by accident, over the last couple of years I’ve found myself an increasingly vocal participant in this discourse. My own erratic contributions have centred around the myriad ways in which working-class participation in poetry is policed; the ways in which our exclusion is engineered, our voices and ideas homogenised, defanged and defused. I’ve written at length on the importance of recognising our right to poetry; that poetry is ours, its art emerging of necessity from the economic conditions in which we find ourselves, from this climate of precarity, apprehension and threat. Poetry’s mode of production is fitted for lives mired in unlovable labour, anxiety and deprivation. It’s portable, it’s cheap, it communicates in flashes and fragments, moments or phrases pulled from the true. It functions as both an expression of and an escape from all that besets us. It is radiant and necessary.

You’d be amazed, or maybe you wouldn’t, by the number of people who take issue with this definition of poetry. Can you eat a fucking poem? A friend of mine asked. Is poetry going to feed the meter or wash my clothes or pay my bus fare? No, of course not. A poem doesn’t belong to the same order of things as a jacket potato or a five pound note. It won’t satisfy your hunger, but it does provide a language in which to describe being hungry, in which to expose and to challenge the political and economic conditions that keep you hungry. Poetry is a resource for those without recourse. It is a space for those whose struggles and sufferings are exiled from quotidian language. It points to the deficiencies and failures of the systems that administer us. It’s the one place we get to define who and what we are, a place where we are visible, present, where our experiences enter and infiltrate English on our terms. Daily discourse doesn’t allow for this.

This is why poetry matters to me. As far as I’m concerned, this is the point of poetry. Since about 2016, as I began to refine this argument, to test its weight out there in the world, I have been lucky enough to meet with and share poetry across various cohorts of working-class writers. These experiences have been some of the most valuable and nourishing of my creative life. And yet, I find that even among my colleagues and comrades I’m continuously butting heads about what poetry is and what it's for.

The biggest bone of contention has been this notion of accessibility, specifically the notion of accessibility constructed as some kind of absolute and unassailable moral category, in violent opposition to a parallel tradition of academic elitism. I take issue with the idea that my work should strenuously enact this kind of accessibility, that it has an ethical obligation to communicate in “the language of the people”. Such an idea is disingenuous and patronising in the extreme. Poetry simply isn’t speech. Whether you’re talking about Attila the Stockbroker or J.H. Prynne, poetry is crafted, tailored and shaped; refined and heightened, larded or stripped. Poetry is deliberate, each line transmits tension, intention and meaning. To pretend otherwise is to deny the discipline in what we do, to be afraid to call ourselves artists, to effectively edit ourselves out of art. Besides which, who says that working-class people must find poetic complexity off-putting? Who says we should not be stimulated and provoked by difficulty? That our experiences and ideas do not demand and facilitate strange and complex registers of language?

To accept this is inherently impoverishing to poetry. I have come to believe that the onus should not be on working-class creators to limit their field of expression, but that access – that is full cultural participation – is better achieved by bringing pressure to bear on the institutions and funding bodies driving this perceived dichotomy to implement real, radical systemic change in the way resources are allocated, in the way that poetry is taught, and to the provision of not merely equal but fair opportunities for creative cultural contribution. Poetry isn’t accessible or inaccessible, but our current educational system operates a hidden curriculum that manipulates and limits working-class imagination, telling those from the margins what is and isn’t for them, what parts of poetry they have a right to partake of, practice and enjoy.

Staking radical political claims upon rendering individual creative projects accessible is seductive. It’s seductive because it’s easy, a kind of cop-out that avoids engaging the deep systemic and structural inequalities inherent in the publication and dissemination of poetry, and in language itself. To be poor, for example, and to be marginalised, is to find yourself everywhere described, relentlessly recorded and administered, spoken of, but never to, figuring not as persons but as problems within the apparatus, language, and collective imagination of the state. Daily discourse serves to elide or to invisibilise grim material reality; stock phrases reduce and dehumanise you; bland bureaucracy circumscribes your testimony, inhibits and restricts you. You are failed by language, by the sterile functionality of commonplace language encounters. We might be accustomed to thinking of words as tools for expression, but more often than not they mediate and mask, filter and constrain; they neutralise potential threat, they blunt language’s capacity for affective moral witness. So it is no longer enough to say I am cold, I am hungry. Those words have lost their meaning, their ability to shock people into awareness. To expose what ordinary language obscures requires strangeness and hybridity; new phrases, new ways of saying to retune attention toward human suffering.

The continual backlash against richness and complexity in poetry both frustrates and perplexes me. To be dexterous with language, to force it into strange conjunctions, is to feel a little less at its mercy; to accelerate at warp speed away from the diminishing institutional lingo of government departments, and the easy dismissive stereotyping of popular parlance. It is to escape the narrative demands placed on me by a world that has asked me every day for the last eighteen years to account for myself, my mental state and my experiences in a vocabulary unfit for the task; to dilute my perceptions, thoughts and feelings to a linear stream of commonplaces, commonplaces that have no room for creativity, inventiveness, ambiguity or élan. It makes no sense to me to use the words, phrases and formulations of the systems that harass and hound me to tackle those systems. It would bring me no joy, it would offer me no release, and most importantly of all, it wouldn’t do a thing to redress the stupid, stupefying force of those systems. We must recognise our right to poetry, to all poetry, as both writers and readers, but as working-class activists we must also pursue a radical imperative towards polyvocality, complexity and richness.

I do not mean by this that poetry has room only for baroque multi-clausal psycho-dramas, but that our definition of what working-class poetry is and can encompass be expanded to include ways of using language that deviate from the expected and accessible; that we do not decry as “inauthentic” or manoeuvre out of our communities and publishing cohorts working-class voices that approach poetry in difficult or unconventional ways. It seems to me to be untenable – and yes even “elitist” – to insist working-class creators conform to and perform one monolithic vision of working-class identity, cutting ourselves off in self-policing enclaves away from wider cultural conversations about the practice of our art. Elitist, and monstrously self-defeating. Inverted snobbery is still snobbery, and professing some kind of political bias against the beautiful, intricate or challenging is erecting a massive wall between yourself and much that is nourishing, interesting and inspiring. 

If we begin by taking issue with the ways in which working-class voices are allowed to express themselves through poetry, we end by adjudicating on what are authentic and acceptable subjects for working-class poems. It is true that a great deal of what finds its way into print says nothing to us about our lives, but is that really to say that a working-class poetics is a poetics that consciously and continuously engages with one very specific material and economic reality? Is there no room in our conception of working-class poetics for poems about mountains, stars, the sea, quirks of nature, kinks in history, penguins, flowers, Carmelite lace? In denying ourselves and our poetries those things, don’t we allow their imaginative colonisation by intellectual and economic power elites, their ways of seeing and knowing the world? I don’t want to rid poetry of the view from a steep and windswept hill. I just wish that view wasn’t monopolised by people whose vision is tinted by a security and a certainty me and mine will never possess. We have so much to say about beauty, our sense of it is urgent and acute, bound about as it is by the pressures and privations of our daily lives. Say what you like about what I do, but when Fran Lock looks at a sunset you fucking know about it.

More than all of this, though, I write in praise of a working-class poetics that revels in richness and strangeness because I believe the subjects of my poems warrant and deserve that level of attention and intensity. I’ve fought hard to bring these landscapes into print, and to defend my vision of these places and these people as beautiful and good. Most don’t look at squats and doss houses and rusty caravans and council estates and flyovers and petrol station forecourts and muddy rec grounds as sites of and occasions for beauty. They’re wrong. These were my places, my people, and they’ve just as much right to intelligent, nuanced and textured language as anything or anyone else. By this practice they are lifted and cherished. Richness is an act of remembrance, preservation, grieving, a radical act of love.

Homobonus in Primark

by Fran Lock

where will it end? the long-sleeve t-shirts
sleep, all folded over themselves like bats.
black lycra’s pirate sinew stretched to slack.
and tubes of ruined wool relax and lose
their shape. sleeves wear the gape empty
snakes. disfigured fabrics frayed in heaps.
a woman shaking out the prissy shapes
of a summer blouses. a hanger’s embittered
caress. for two pound ten! each pleat
a gauntlet of skirmished thread, rough to
the touch. it costs so little! the woman said.
impossible pasture of rags, dear god! it costs
so very much. where will it end? i stroke
the mesh, the weft, the weave, from cheviot to
chiffon-cling. grope a glut of sturdy twills.
my hands surge out across an odyssey
of cotton, serge. and batiste gowns are
grown in rows like off-white heads of
lettuce. crisp and sleek. and underfoot,
the scattered wits of covered buttons. look!
it’s in the sale! adrenaline and penny pinch.
cash canters horselessly between the heels.
hemlines. oh, i have loved the cambrics
and the calicos, the way a seam will meet
like steadfast hands in payer. i have loved
the self-important bombazines and obsolete
brocades, stood in satin-transfix running
a bolt of blue charmeuse through my hands
like a live fish. but no, not like this. no,
not this way. the woman who sewed
this blouse, this dress, her lungs are diseased
heirlooms huffing dust; her shoulders cramped
askew. not like this, a child in a stocking
of sweat with eyes as dull and flat as coins,
his name a smudge on a label. the day
that factory became a dirt red funnel
for human grief. it’s just so cheap, dirt
cheap! yes, dirt. your cambrics, buckrams
heresies. and what’s it worth, a mewling
life? how many assiduous stitches, tucked
and running? in lamé gold is interwoven -
sweet secret vein through common cloth.
as pain pursues its jagged course, in every
shirt you smooth and touch.

Note: Being the Patron Saint of tailors and businessmen, Homobonus provides an ethical exemplar for commercial life: scrupulously honest, and using his fortune to help those in need. Primark use sweatshop labour. In 2013 one of their factories in Dhaka collapsed killing and trapping hundreds of workers. At a subsequent demonstration in Dhaka by factory workers in 2015, police opened fire on grieving protestors. Primark avoided paying over 9 billion in corporation tax this year. They are still open for business. This is not okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our comrade saints, whose unmade faces are empty airports: two poems by Fran Lock
Friday, 21 December 2018 10:46

Our comrade saints, whose unmade faces are empty airports: two poems by Fran Lock

Published in Poetry

In need of saints

by Fran Lock

no one else to share my slanted fate. god was
routine unrelenting splendour; too fine and far
a thing to help. nervous and compelled between
the corridor, the alleyway, or any place a slack
luck failed. pain like tearing paper; pain
like biting through a glass. spasm, cramp. on
days that paled to finite shine in ugly towns
of bleak taboo beside the sea. terrible things.
this secret snow inside the globe of me. learnt
to defer to a four-letter word, to the force
majeure of shame. girls conform to the lock-
jaw logic of tetanus – dread for days. afraid
to say, afraid to name, afraid of speech. girls
untongue their stunting curse with silence,
cannot pray. god was an unbodied brilliance
loose in the room, too bright and wide a thing
to help. and christ as pure as a blank page,
the standard hush of libraries. no one else to
share recession’s stink, insomnia, this bare
and complex dark without design. unsteadied
and expendable, where flesh is ghettoed, got,
in bruising schools or trapped in airless rooms
on truant afternoons. a twisted mess of pleats
and seams our stammered lot. and god is
good, but god’s too good, and god aghast
is, faberge and satellite – beaming his gold
nonplus in tempered waves. on days you need
a human hand, a human heart. and what is
prayer? in the ear or in the air? in between
each doubt and grounded wish. the intelligent
shape of noise. what is prayer? a hope you hold
becalmed in the bowl of your own hearing?
insensible shell, the ear that makes an ache
of all my straining for sound. to be received,
just once. it was rita and mary magdalene,
lucia, agnes and Theresa who pulled me up
from joyless aural dystrophy: lost in abject
static – the directionless spite of words
unheard, halfheard, unsaid. to be received.
somewhere, by women like myself, but strong.
saints, our better engines, our comrades,
our sorority. they were my own sleek coping –
there in my mildewed bedroom, coming
and going, a tiered light in their hair, as fast
as doves or monkeys, as tangible as cats.

fig12

Rita of the White Bees

by Fran Lock

To Saint Rita of Cascia, Patron Saint of Impossible Causes, and of abused women.

pray for us, for the girls like green splinters, their pierced
reveal unfolding in small towns running on skeleton crews;
for the pageant-hearted girls who burst like bright ideas into
backseats, bikinis, the blessable dream of being human; for
the too skinny stay-awake girls, living on rice wine and red
light, whose home is the typical elsewhere of exiles; for the
lip-glossed gonzo girls, those high femme fatalists, all cried
out; for the lost girls, giddy and groped on, coked to their
stoic ponytails, shiny and slick and swinging like whips; for
the headlong girls, barefoot and bracing themselves in a bus
lane, smiles like Saint Laurent scarves on fire, manic
and vampire; for the girls who went waning in wraparound
glasses to clinics and vigils; for the pub-crawled girls in
packs, in parks and lanes, alive with the loitering joy
of foxes; for the girls who fuck like stray cats come to
sad anatomical terms in the spongy summer nights of cities;
for the girls in ravenous warp speed, spinning, spun, till tears
collect in their cartwheeled eyes like sparks; pray for us, for
wasted girls with workshy serotonin, whose trestle cheekbones
grind on air; for the peep-toed girls with broken heels
and fake eyelashes, trafficking tears at a photo shoot; for
the lookbook, look back angry girls, whose bad day is
a black dress that goes with everything; for the bitch fight
girls, their raw collided atmospheres on fire, all cellulite,
venom, and celebrity perfume; for the girls whose hairdos
are stairways to heaven, whose pigments shiver in vintage
frocks, whose song is a storm in a borderline thought, who
tend their fetishes like flowers; for the girls, most of all,
who are their own witching hour, their jaundiced drama
dragging them down in the bump and grind of a tightening
gyre; for the girls whose vertigo is not the fear of falling, but
the fear of jumping; who are so entirely sick of this mingy,
yelping ethic men call love; for the girls who are no longer
young, whose unmade faces are empty airports; whose
bodies are the quarrels they are having with themselves;
for these girls, their madness lasting them out like a sensible
pair of leather boots. Patroness of Impossible Causes,
pray for us, that we might flip a decade’s deadweight
like a mattress; gather our Godspeed, walk away from
ourselves.

Rag Town See God

 Rag Town Girls See God, by Steev Burgess

National Poetry Day: you ask us why we fight
Thursday, 04 October 2018 09:46

National Poetry Day: you ask us why we fight

Published in Poetry

you ask us why we fight

by Fran Lock

you can make an inkblot of your nosebleed if you want to. talk and tsk and suck
your teeth. conspiracy and crucible, and last of all is cliché: fighting irish. Tell me
how my fist offends propriety, then name me one good thing on earth was ever
given freely. i’m a joke to you, but i have known a place where mothers make
a theme song of their grieving. i’ve seen men kneel, not pious but defeated; seen
them keen, with doffed caps and tied tongues, and tugged forelocks, far too long.
girls in gingham tabards, thin fingers rag-picked to an angry spasm; our young
bucks buckled like broken ploughs after hard graft and heavy lifting. you don’t
want to know. so i swing, at gin-sickness, pittance and piecework; flick-knives
and switchblades, imperfect contrition. i swing at the pitchy stink of the barges,
at the pinch-penny portions of leprous bread; at itchy armpits, scarlet fevers, at
scavenging, navvying, flimsies and chits. because this is your world: bald men
dragging their knuckles across the middle distance. men with tattooed dewlaps,
goosebumped in bermuda shorts, flying their stomachs and half-mast, screaming
a sieg heil! into my face. there is nothing to eat, offal and porridge and free
school meals. there’s nothing to do, so brothers go obnoxious, unwashed,
prodigal. or get themselves dead behind heritage. bygone pogrom, bad-debt,
self-doubt and ethnic cleansing. they took it to heart when you said you was better
than them. you took it too far when you said they belong to this doldrum squalor
and tenement dread, amphetamine pestilence, out of their heads, forever amen.
so i swing, i swing at the diesel and grease of an air we dare not breathe.
i swing at the mean-featured foremen, cussing and cursing and nursing their
two ton grudges; at all the self-made men, who expect us to pull ourselves up
by our punchlines, a racist slur with cowshit on our boots. i swing because
i’m sick of paedo priests and hanging judges; acid casualties, psycho-killers,
crouching like gargoyles in unlit stairwells, all straight razors and skinny
wrists. no one believes we are better than this. aspirant suicides, ceasefire
babies. brave new world, pimping its pockmarked acres of flesh in the shit-
witted gridlock of closing time, where patriots haggle for snatch in an alley,
and mullet-cutted absolutists traffic in retaliation, tracksuits and black-market
meat. deadbeat dads, slack-jawed and confecting endless fear against
the sloping dark. oh, brave new world, of custodial no-hopers flogging stolen
stereos in multi-storey car parks. jerusalem. i swing, for little girls slurring
their homework. you called them sluts, you said they weren’t worth

the sweat off satan’s back, and now they believe. and now, those scallies
sharpen their hand- me-down swagger to a cutting edge. they’ll cash your
cheque then spit in your shadow, leave you for dead. and you act surprised,
ask yourself why, while colicky longing fills the pigeon-chests of children.
while widows with twisted faces amplify bereavement with burlesque. a black
dress contriving tactical malady. i swing, for the gaunt blunt-force of a pain
that breaks your back, for our remedial belief, the queasy bloated grief we march
in step with through the rankled light, the racing rain. born by summer’s histamine
psychosis; bearing our fierce, inflexible shame. i swing, with my seldom succoured
brothers, sucker-punched, and always stuck somewhere between our conscience
and our cunning. jerusalem, of dirges and of lurgies, sluggish nightmare, fumbling
drudgework, men like you. justice, is a thin soup supped with a long spoon. small
wonder we fight, it’s all we can do.

 

Don't mention the word class! The theft of working-class culture
Monday, 01 October 2018 20:55

Don't mention the word class! The theft of working-class culture

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock exposes the hypocrisy, classism and elitism in contemporary liberal attempts to edit, erode and police working-class participation in the arts, and she calls for the radical, systematic democratisation of culture.

Here she goes again!

Over the last few months I have been asked to contribute to or participate in four separate projects exploring working-class creativity and voice. Being the Millwall FC of the London poetry circuit (no one likes me, no one likes me, no one likes me, I don’t care) it’s a rare pleasure to be taking part in anything, but these projects are exciting in very particular and important ways, in that they are conceived and driven by working-class people, and that they extend the possibility of an expanded and polyvocal concept of community. This is timely. And it matters to me enormously on a personal as well as a political level. It should matter to you too.

It’s timely, and it matters because the old rhetorics of representation and cultural inclusivity have often led to a selectively edited picture of working-class identity in literature and the arts; a situation in which one or two – usually white, usually old, usually male – voices become icons and ambassadors for a complex network of cultures and experiences. To give a recent example close to my heart: it didn’t matter shit one to me that Simon Armitage became Oxford Chair of Poetry. Nothing against Simon Armitage, as a poet or a person; he’d more than earned his right to be there as far as I’m concerned. What is troubling about his appointment is the way in which it has been uncritically trumpeted as a triumph of working-class representation. And it’s not, it’s really not. A post-war northern male version of working-classness is one of the few acceptable faces of working-class identity permitted to proliferate across mainstream media platforms. This is deliberate: the poetry’s distance from the material realities it describes presupposes and encodes a nostalgia, a looking back that defuses potential threat (social or poetic), softens the language of experience, and makes safe what might otherwise be challenging to the cultural status-quo.

Don't mention the word class!

This creates a dangerous situation, and here I think about something that the trade union leader and activist Bob Crow once said in response to a shitty tabloid heckle about how his taking a holiday in France was somehow antithetical to his left-wing politics and his working-class “credentials”. What do you want? Crow asked, for me to spend my holidays crouched under a bridge reading Das Kapital? This makes us laugh, but it’s also telling about the bind in which working-class cultural creators continually find ourselves: expected to conform to and to constantly perform a very narrow, very specific version of working-class identity. Power elites pick their icons and ambassadors with care, using them as standards against which to weigh, measure and validate our authenticity. We are expected to relentlessly enact somebody else’s idea of what we should be. And if we’re not being and doing that, then we are found to be “inauthentic”, we are dismissed, and our exclusion from any meaningful cultural conversation about class is effectively engineered.

This matters, because the people traditionally holding the purse strings, controlling the presses; the people responsible for funding us and publishing us, are the same power elites who decide what constitutes a valid working-class voice, and an acceptable working-class identity. Arts Council England, for example, has nothing to gain from supporting people and projects who challenge or threaten their traditional business model, and most major publishers are wary of a working-class poetics that openly and explicitly acknowledges the politics of its own oppression. To have your work “out there” in any meaningful sense, to secure the invaluable financial assistance by which a creative project lives or dies, is to accept that your work, and that you, as a person, will be mediated, filtered and enmeshed, by and in the machinery of a grossly unequal hierarchy. By this method we are compromised. We tailor and shape our voices and ourselves to fit their image of us, and our working-classness is depoliticised and de-fanged through an act of caricature. By this mechanism is the triumph of working-class representation transformed into the tool by which working-class participation in the arts is edited, eroded and policed.

When I hear arts and poetry organisations talking about the importance of “accessibility”, and of writing in “the language of the people” it drives me absolutely bat-shit. Firstly, because who says “the people” shouldn’t find poetic difficulty stimulating and inspiring? And secondly because my poetry is perfectly fucking accessible; it’s the way in which education circumscribes and abbreviates working-class imagination that’s at fault, the way poetry is taught in schools, hand in hand with a hidden curriculum that tells kids like me this is not for you.

The onus shouldn’t be on the poet to limit their field of expression to cater to the imagined ignorance of people who were never given the opportunity to understand or enjoy poetry in the first place, particularly not when the poet herself is from those same social margins. The pressure should be on governments, funding bodies, and on the same organisations making these asinine pronouncements, to implement real, radical systemic change to the way resources are allocated, to the way poetry is taught, to the provision of not merely equal but fair access to creative cultural participation.

Co-opt their language before they win the argument!

When I hear organisations and publications bigging up the “accessibility” of a particular artist, text or movement like that’s the be-all and end-all of existence, what I hear is the desperate attempt of an out-dated and culpable power elite to absolve itself of responsibility for the grinding inequality and misrepresentation that faces working-class people as a class within the arts and literature. What leaves a truly special cat-shit taste in the mouth is when the language of radicalism is used to prop up the status-quo, usually at the expense of the communities and movements whose fearless campaigning and artistic activism generated this language. What is worse is when they use the deployment of socially conscious buzzwords as a way of silencing criticism.

For a prime-rib example of the former we need look no further that ACE’s recent publication of the mildly nauseating “Cultural Democracy in Practice”, which appropriates and misapplies the language and concepts of the Movement for Cultural Democracy without ever once acknowledging the relationship of cultural value to the exercise of power and authority.

MQ pi 04 2016 map

ACE's vision of Cultural Democracy in Practice

Despite Cultural Democracy’s absolute embeddedness in ideas of class struggle, ACE’s document ignores class altogether and minimises the relevance of race, gender or age to cultural participation. It has been suggested that ACE’s paper is more about shoring itself up against probing questions surrounding equity, distribution of power, and the redistribution of funds, than it is about challenging or changing these things. In other words, ACE has co-opted community engagement in order to perpetuate the economic and cultural status quo.

There’s a wonderfully perverse bit of manoeuvring here, and it’s typical of the systems inside of which art and literature are expected to operate. An organisation – in this case ACE – pays vocal and public lip-service to the idea of “cultural democracy” or “social inclusivity”, or any the hell else other thing, without ever acknowledging or altering the inherent inequality at the heart of its deep structures. Rather, the language of radicalism and social justice is cynically exploited to legitimate that organisation’s attitudes and behaviours, and any criticism of the way they interpret or deploy this language becomes a de facto criticism of the things for which those words and phrases stand. An organisation that wants to present itself as progressive, equal and inclusive, can then wheel out one of its safe icon-ambassadors as a kind of human-shield: look, we can’t be institutionally racist, sexist, or classist because here is a black, female working-class spokesperson, and if you criticise us, you criticise that person, and if you criticise that person it is you who is racist, sexist, and classist.

Pretty sneaky. Sticking with poetry and class it’s easy to see how figures like Armitage function like the One Black Friend of the idiot who just made that unspeakably racist joke: his mere presence categorically proves there is no problem with systemic classism in the arts, and that absolutely no one has to take any responsibility for the shit they say or the things they do.

But there are so many difficulties inherent in bringing any kind of systemic critique to bear upon either the arts in general or the “Poetry Community” in particular. It’s a small community, after all. Insular, pretty incestuous even, and the exercise of applying analysis has a way of making waves few at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder can afford. Dissent is neutralised by creating dependence (the elites run everything from major presses, to courses, to competitions) and ensuring complicity (we need to play nice to get our work out there, to keep our heads above water), which ultimately compromises our credibility as critics.

Either that, or the act of criticism in invalidated via the expedient route of dismissing the individual critic. There’s an awful Catch-22 here which goes something like this: if you are un- or under-published, if you have little by way of formal education, then you forfeit your right to be taken seriously and your criticism amounts to nothing. However, if you are published, and you are educated, then you have no right to complain, your criticism is so much empty histrionics – worse, you are biting the hand that has so consistently fed you.

We need more acceptable faces of feminism!

We see evidence of this tactic in the media’s treatment of “instapoet” Rupi Kaur, and the serial twitterstorms and social media fallout that followed her publication by Simon & Schuster late last year. Because Kaur was continuously touted and positioned as the “voice” of young women of colour, her work single-handedly credited with making poetry “accessible” and exciting again, removing it from the “ivory towers of academia” and giving it back to a hungry general populace, to criticise Kaur’s poetry was to be racist, misogynist, or some kind of grotesque elitist snob. But it requires only the bare minimum of analytical effort to unpick this tangled tapestry of bullshit. Who, after all, was doing all this touting and positioning? Kaur’s agent, maybe? An elitist mainstream media? Her publisher? Look closer and Kaur’s publication and subsequent rise to stratospheric poetry-stardom emerges as a manipulative marketing exercise.

To acknowledge that doesn’t make a person a snob, or a racist, or a fucking misogynist. It makes a person somebody who cares deeply that marginalised women and girls have better representatives and poetic role-models than Kaur and her pallid, directionless pap. True, her subjects are vital, necessary and engaging, but that doesn’t make her poetry good. If we don’t demand rigour and richness of ourselves or our so-called “representatives”, we impoverish ourselves as cultural creators, we promote a dangerous underestimation of ourselves as artists. We have to ask ourselves why Kaur is picked up and promoted at the expense of other, better young women writers of colour, of which there are so, so, so many. Go to Rap Party, or to one of Out-Spoken Press’ live nights; take a casual scroll through the archives of Peter Raynard’s Proletarian Poetry, read Arshi, Mahfouz, Shire, Osman, Minamore, Lola, Allen-Miller, Miguel, Sur. And understand that what Kaur represents is the co-opted and compromised “acceptable face” of feminism, a commodified, consumer-friendly feminism with the edges rounded off, a feminism that nods vaguely in the general direction of all that besets us without ever offering a meaningful challenge to or analysis of those forces.

Typing the above has made me feel extremely uncomfortable. I understand the importance of sisterhood and solidarity, and I don’t particularly enjoy trashing other people’s work. But I’ve been wondering lately if a desire to be “nice” or “supportive” isn’t killing the necessary work of criticism. Should the fact that there are so few working-class women poets, and even fewer working-class women poets of colour mean that I’m bound to support even those writers whose poetry is hackneyed, misguided or unhelpful? This isn’t a rhetorical question, it’s a genuine and pressing one. And I understand that art is subjective, and that Kaur’s poetry isn’t for me. It has a right to exist, and I’m glad, I guess, if there are young women out there who get something from it. But – and this is a big but – isn’t it possible that young women would get more from any of the other artists I just mentioned? What would happen if they were given the opportunity to meaningfully choose? If media coverage and publishing trends did true justice to the sheer depth of diversity that exists in contemporary poetry, rather than fastening on to one or two commercially viable cash-cows and milking them dry? It’s the disproportionate emphasis on a couple of big safe names that bothers me. It’s tokenistic and it’s patronising, and it’s limiting to our collective voice, and it’s diluting to our collective dissent.

Let Coke democratise culture! Let them eat McDonalds!

Discomfort abounds for me in poetry. Discomfort abounds for me in other areas too, but poetry has the upmost sweetness and meaning to me, it’s the sea I swim in, and so those anxieties are the most vivid and acute. Poetry fulfils this role for me largely because – and this is another of my oft trotted hobby-horses, so bear with me – poetry, as an artistic medium is so sublimely suited to the material conditions of working-class existence. Growing up, to do literally anything else: paint, act, sing, learn an instrument, play a sport, required time and resources neither myself nor my family could afford to commit. To write a poem all you need is an eye, a voice, and something to scratch your rage out on.

Fran Lock unlovablelabour 2

Unlovable labour, by Steev Burgess

Its method of production suits a population mired in the wretched life-consuming hell of poverty and unlovable labour. It can be practiced alone, anywhere; you don’t need pricey tuition, you get better by doing it, and who, after all, is more attuned to the music of your own experience than you? Growing up, I also felt a tremendous need for poetry, its immediacy and urgency spoke to me in ways prose could not reach; it bypassed the banality and circumlocution of everyday speech and made me feel emotionally connected to people and places far beyond the narrow confines of my life. It was both a way of expressing and understanding my daily experiences, and of escaping them to somewhere different, somewhere better. And so I feel powerfully that poetry is ours, by right and by necessity both.

Which is why this sense of discomfort pervades. In the past year I have seen poetry used to advertise everything from building societies to mobile phones, from Coke, to McDonalds. Fucking McDonalds. And I’ve followed the online debates about how this is actually a good thing: poetry is the language of the people, it’s not some precious, rarefied medium that needs to be kept, protected and unsullied from the grubby hustle of commerce. It’s democratic, I’ve been told, and anyway, who died and made me moral arbiter of “the scene”? What right do I have to judge the decisions of others? People have got to eat, and you can’t claim to support working-class poetry then shit on working-class people who are selling their art to survive. Right?

Yeah, okay, up to a point, but I don’t know whether reducing art to a shitty little cash-nexus is really such a staggering victory for cultural democracy. And look, I guess it’s fine if you want to contribute a poem to an institution or a product that manages to avoid abject moral bankruptcy, but, and I feel this is true in the case of the Nationwide ads especially, what you’re selling isn’t just the poetry, it’s yourself, the poet, it’s your working-classness; you’re allowing this building society to co-opt your “credentials” as a signifier of their authenticity and integrity. You’re using your heritage, your history, your bloody accent, on someone else’s behalf. Nationwide isn’t us. It isn’t grossly exploitative, and it’s owned by its shareholders, but it still isn’t us. It’s £2.3m in chief executive pay’s worth of not us in fact, and this in a time of mass unemployment, stagnating wage growth and in insanely hyper-inflated housing market that’s making it difficult for most of us to eke out an existence.

MH the employed poor

The employed poor, by Martin Hayes

I think what bothers me most, though, is the way in which the ghosts of working-class history are summoned up in the service of this financial product. Unfairness is acknowledged, but in the most cursory way possible, as if poverty and suffering were a force of nature, something that just happened to people in the bad old days, not something done to people systemically and systematically, deliberately, continuously, still.

But shit, Nationwide are not actually terrible, so who am I to pick holes in other people’s choices? You’ll grant me I’m on safer ground with my other examples, right? McDonalds, I mean, catch yourselves on, what a crock. If I read one more article about how “populism is good” or “it’s bringing poetry to a wider audience” I swear I’ll blow a gasket. Firstly, because this isn’t poetry, it’s something cooked up by an ad agency pretending to be poetry, and secondly because this isn’t populism, its cod-populism, it’s a corporation riding poetry’s coat-tails to position itself as your mate, in order that it might more effectively peddle its deep-fried patties of eyelids and arseholes, sawdust and spit.

Poetry, the way its rhythms encode and invite intimacy, its direct address, its person-to-person quality, these things are hijacked by the God-awful “just passing by” ad. The rhymes are reminiscent of McGough or Mitchell without being written by either, delivered by Neil Morrissey in a suitably blokey brogue. These signifiers of working-class identity, working-class poetics are tactically exploited to legitimate this shitvert, and position McDonalds as essentially inseparable from everyday working-class experience. As a working-class person I call bull-crap. We deserve better. Even if you can bypass the animal cruelty, and their stellar contribution to world-wide deforestation (I can’t, but that’s just me), McDonalds are still incredibly exploitative of their working-class employees, and historically one of the most aggressively anti-union chains in the fast food industry. Their food is also linked to malnutrition and obesity among the poorest communities worldwide.

And yeah, I will eventually stop flogging McDonalds, but as a corporation it’s just so beautifully illustrative of the way not only working-class culture, but working-class identity is appropriated, distorted and exploited by corporate capitalism.

I think what grinds me most about that crappy advert is its chummy tagline: “There’s a McDonalds for everyone”. Everyone. Like there’s not a version of my existence that isn’t bound up with and tied to their substandard fast-food. As if they’re somehow emblematic of, or synonymous with my culture. I don’t know, you can over-think these things, but that “everyone” still grates. I fear it’s probably the same “everyone” that thrilled to the Olympics and its community-disrupting corporate-sponsored descent upon London, and the same “everyone” that lined the streets to wave flags with feckless abandon at the spectacle of another Royal spawning. “Everyone”. Because if they can’t co-opt you and manufacture your consent, they edit you out of the picture, out of the dominant narrative. I am so entirely sick of being edited out.

The middle class is just better at acting!

This brings me back – somewhat less than neatly – to the arts and literature in general, and to poetry in particular. There’s a vision of working-class culture at work in these spheres that I can only describe as blinkered, monolithic and homogenous. Sorry, I’ll rephrase that: blinkered, monolithic, homogenous, and ubiquitous. This shit is everywhere. And once you’ve seen it, you cannot unsee it, it’s in every advert, every book or television show. It follows you around out the corner of your eye, a very bad case of Baader-Meinhof complex.

I noticed it first in the vox-pops, those little segments of the news where some poor beleaguered reporter has to go out and canvass the general public, get their take on the burning issues of the day. Why were the working-class people they picked to interview invariably inarticulate? Or ignorant? Or prejudiced? Maybe because most populations are inarticulate, ignorant and prejudiced in ways and for reasons entirely unconnected to class? At first I was able to tell myself I was being paranoid. But then came that slew of shit social-safari television: Benefits Street, Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! and my own personal bête–noire, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. Here we come, the undeserving poor, an eternal cast of either criminals or victims, an undifferentiated mass of scrounging, skiving profligates. I’d see this and I’d think about my childhood, about the lives of my family and my friends, and I’d think: okay, but where’s the rest of it? Where are we?

Programmes like Benefits Street and Big Fat Gypsy Weddings are problematic in so many ways, but chiefly, I think, for the way in which they present carefully – and highly selectively – edited footage as documentary fact. Because how do they choose which families, which “characters”, and what stories to film? And how is the way in which these stories are framed, and cut, and scored contributing to a skewed and generally inaccurate representation of working-class people? Further, and more germane to this discussion, what kinds of narrative are these portrayals propping up? Whose interests do they serve?

Let’s face it, when we appear in the mainstream media at all it’s generally in the form of cynical copy-paste poverty porn, and this is absolutely strategic. It’s a way for our cultural elites to have their cake and eat it: they’ve included working-class characters and working-class voices, they’ve included working-class lives, and working-class experiences, and for this they earn a nice big box-ticking pat on the back. But they’ve included them within very narrow, tightly circumscribed parameters: striver or scrounger; the bluff northern male or the brassy cockney blonde; the swaggering black yout’ in a gang, or the fist-fighting congenitally sexist pikey.

This kind of phoney representation extends to fiction too, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sat through some middle-to-upper-class actor doing us pikey in different voices until I wanted to punch holes in concrete. They put us on like working-class drag in order to to flex their hip credentials, to win awards and plaudits for being socially aware, and worse, they do this at the expense of real working-class actors with just as much talent, who don’t have the recourses to compete in the incestuous, nepotistic snake-pits of film and television. Further, cultural expectations of the working-classes have been so successfully engineered, that we are no longer trusted to be the authors, spokespeople or archivists of our own experiences. Instead I’ve got Brad Pitt in Snatch, Michael Fassbender in Trespass Against Us, and the always heartwarming news that everybody’s favourite posh twit Benedict Cumberbatch is going to play Mikey Walsh’s father in a forthcoming screen adaptation of Gypsy Boy.

And poetry’s the same. And I spent such a long time hearing that my voice and my background were unacceptable, that they were things I’d have to minimise in order to “get on”, only to catch people doing me back at me, ventriloquizing me and my life, rocking up to my stages squatting in my postcode, forcing the rent up, garnering right-on points from my edgy poverty but bearing absolutely no responsibility towards the communities and cohorts they’d come crashing into. It pissed me off so much, in fact, I wrote a poem about it.

And you know, there’s what you’re allowed to say, and then there’s the way in which you’re allowed to say it. It isn’t that poetry has a problem with the working class, but it only wants us in certain venues, in particular enclaves whose borders it can effectively police, keeping us away from the business of “serious” cultural labour. “Slam”, for example, is increasingly hyped as “the poetry of the people”, imposing a false dichotomy between page and stage, and drawing an ugly, somewhat arbitrary dividing line between “elite” and “street”. This is patronising, disingenuous and gross. For all the paraded “right on” status of slam and spoken-word, it too has its regular staple of middle-class practitioners. And to assert that it accurately or completely represents working-class poetry is to pretend that there is one singular definitive voice of working-class experience. This is arrant nonsense.

Nothing wrong with slam, of course, and there’s so much about its ethos of community engagement that’s laudable, vital and exciting, but its over-emphasis as somehow exemplary of working-class poetics risks irreparable damage to the complexity, diversity and nuance of working-class poetics and working-class voice. A great deal of the slam I have encountered is – and I’ll admit, my experience might not be typical – samey, in terms of its thematic concerns, syntactic structure, delivery, and in the rhythmic formulation of the work. This only bothers me because the “poetry of the people” label is often used to sententiously confer moral status on personal, stylistic choices. Further, I think there’s an argument to be made that a strong moral agenda is sometimes used to legitimate or excuse lazy-arsed writing.

slambassadors

SLAMbassadors

Again, I’m not lumping all slam poetry together, or saying it’s lazy and bad. SLAMbassadors, for one, is a mad-exciting project, full of promising, talented young poets from every walk of life writing and performing hair-raisingly good material. What I am saying is we have to be so wary of any attempt to homogenise working-class poetics, or any other aspect of our cultural production under this or that banner, particularly when it risks dividing us from wider cultural participation and contribution, and especially when it means uncritically feting work just because it ticks the right boxes. What I am saying is we need to be on our guard against attempts to regiment and codify working-class poetry under the guise of challenging the dominant culture – page is x, so stage is y – it weakens working-class imagination and sets proscriptive limits on the way we are allowed to access poetry.

The working class mustn't become class-conscious!

But what even is “working-class culture”? As a phrase I find it condescending, dismissive and descriptive of nothing. At best it lacks nuance, at worst it becomes a way of corralling together a disparate collection of traits and customs, reducing them to a few tired tropes, and kicking them to the kerb, out of sight, out of mind. This is one of my most recursive and enduring rants, so bear with me while I hammer this sentence out again: there is no single “working-class culture”, and the idea that there is is a deliberate and insidious lie.

Working-class experience is, rather, characterised by its hybridity, its intersectionality. It is a melting and merging of cultures and customs under the impetus of overwhelming economic and social pressure. It’s what drives our creativity and resilience, our flair, our beautiful shoe-string inventiveness with language, with fashion, with music, with food. And it’s this that’s under threat: our image of ourselves as capable of embodying all of these things, and our right to know them and claim them as ours.

During my teenage years one of the hardest things for me was understanding where I fitted in, feeling mongrel, partial, neither one thing nor the other. At school my image of myself oscillated wildly between the belief that I was some kind of sub-genius, and the paralysing certainty that I was fraud, a fuck-up, and a failure. This is because the adults I encountered in the institutions I passed through either wrote me off as soon as I opened my mouth, or were so astonished that I could so much as string a coherent sentence together they immediately began weaving my fairly mediocre abilities into a narrative of individual exceptionalism. Reason being, neither side could accept someone like me had exactly the same capacities and potentials as the assimilated middle-class kids. Nothing they had seen or read or allowed themselves to experience had prepared them for the surprising possibility that I was a normal adolescent with a fairly decent brain. It just did not compute. So, when I bollixed something up it confirmed the worst suspicions I had about myself, and when I did something right I felt like a freak. Two years into a Ph.D. and I still struggle with this. What helps is understanding how this situation was engineered. How cultural elites operate to exclude, omit or erase the stories and voices of people like me, to wipe out our sense of ourselves as active participants in the cultural sphere. How these elites create self-loathing, how these elites create shame.

When I listen to a lot of the conversations about the “theft of working-class culture”, I feel this is an element that’s missing. It isn’t that the middle-classes or any group of power elites want to monopolise a particular uniform territory or set of traditions, it’s that they appropriate and cherry-pick arbitrary elements across a broad set of cultures and practices, exploit those elements for kudos and cache while telling us that we, our cultures, our lives, are the shit that’s left. Scrap. Offal. They sneer at us for not speaking well, but selectively adopt our linguistic ticks and flourishes to enrich their own verbal excursions. They steal our music and our clothes, they gentrify our dancehalls and our mosh-pits and our open mics, then they sell the resultant mess back to us at inflated prices, forcing us off of our stages, out of our mouths, out of our own skin.

Long live mainstream capitalist culture!

To take a non-poetry example that’s still very near to my heart, look at what happened to punk, to ska and to two-tone; look at the way in which the music was stripped of its radical political message, how the low-budget nuttiness and fevered invention of working-class kids was hoovered up, homogenised and returned to us as white male junkies in studded leather jackets. Same with hip-hop, how intense, socially conscious lyric flyting of kids with jack shit was sucked in and spat back out as slick misogynist crap, underscoring the same acquisitive, competitive, toxically masculine values as main-stream capitalist culture.

Caravaggio Taking of Christ rev

The Betrayal of Christ, by Caravaggio, c. 1602

And here, on this weird cultural margin, as a working-class, culturally “other” poet, you’re told there’s a part of you that’s defective or offensive, and if you want to get anywhere, you need to scrub that part out. I tried, I really tried, to my eternal shame. When I first come to London, because my image of myself and any pride or joy I might have taken in my heritage – ancestral or familial – had been so effectively destroyed, I negated myself: I wrote these terrible, monumental Fruit & Fabre-y poems, and I poshed my voice when I went on stage and read aloud. When this became too great a schizoid betrayal of everyone and everything I ever loved, and I started to write and speak as me, I was told I was “fetishizing” and exploiting my past. In time I realised that there is no version of my work that would be acceptable, that wouldn’t be used as a stick to beat me with. If I write my culture then I’m “playing the race / class card”. If I choose to write about anything else then I’m inauthentic, failing in my duty as ambassador apologist for “my people”, a sell-out and a fraud.

This is how elites and their cultural structures and institutions contrive to obliterate working-class voices, and tactically remove working-class people from the arena of literary and artistic participation. If they can’t control or co-opt you they make the effort of expressing yourself so exhausting, confusing and dispiriting, you just want to give up. And I have really wanted to give up this last year. Academia is horrible, exclusionary, alienating and fatiguing. My life is hard in material and emotional ways ninety-nine percent of my peers have absolutely zero hope of understanding, and the loneliness of that, of being a statistical freak inside a system designed to exclude me is really starting to take its toll. Nevertheless –

Oh no, they're waking up!

I will keep going, because working-class people are waking up to the urgency of this situation, because for the first time in a long time it feels as if we are galvanised and primed to become the authors and the archivists of our own experiences and stories. I am excited to be a part of this. I am excited to show people the sheer breadth and depth of what we can do. I’m excited that this could mark a genuinely significant turning point: no longer obsessed with defining or defending some invented and illusory idea of “the culture”, singular, we’re expanding, extending, exposing and evolving the notion of what that might be.

A gorgeous, shameless, hybrid beast.

B and R award

A gorgeous, shameless, hybrid beast, by Anon.

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